By: Jena Hausmann, Andrew Romanoff

What would you do if you had to give up your child in order to access mental health services? For some Coloradans, this is a reality.

Colorado ranked 48th in the country for overall youth mental health, according to Mental Health America’s 2018 “The State of Mental Health in America” report. This same report estimates that more than 13 percent of Colorado teens ages 12-17 have had at least one major depressive episode in the last year. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for Coloradans aged 10-24, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.

These statistics are staggering. Our organizations, Children’s Hospital Colorado and Mental Health Colorado, have seen these issues firsthand. We stand united with many other organizations throughout Colorado in advocating for solutions to address our state’s current youth mental health crisis.

One proposal in the legislature that takes a small but important step toward addressing youth mental health is still making its way through the process. The Children and Youth Mental Health Treatment Act, House Bill 1094, would strengthen the youth mental health system in our state for children with highly specialized mental health needs. The bill enjoys strong bipartisan sponsorship from champions for youth mental health, Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) and Rep. Cole Wist (R-Centennial), and Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik (R-Thornton) and Sen. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City).

A tragic gap in the mental health system meant that, for years, parents had to choose between securing needed services for a child with critical mental health needs and keeping their family together. This impossible choice is one no parent should ever have to make. House Bill 1094 proposes to fill the gap in coverage for residential and community-based treatment, keeping families together while at the same time ensuring access to appropriate youth mental health care.

The problem starts when Colorado families with private health insurance find that their policies often do not cover long-term placements for their children in residential mental health treatment or long-term community-based treatment. Desperate to find help for their child and out of other options, some families turn to child welfare, which qualifies their child for Medicaid and subsequently covers their child’s mental health needs. This meant parents can end up relinquishing their custodial rights just so they could ensure access to mental health treatment, even though no abuse or neglect has taken place. It is a failure of our system, and it is not right.

Fortunately, since 1999, the Children and Youth Mental Health Treatment Act has ensured that families do not have to give up their parental rights just to get their child into mental health treatment services. Last year, nearly 100 families were served by this successful program.

Over the last 10 years, 87 percent of children served by the program have successfully avoided child welfare or juvenile services. This means much higher quality of life for these kids and their families. It also represents a strong return on investment for the state of Colorado and for its counties.

The program has helped guarantee family unity and protections for children at the time they need it most. However, due to this program’s demand and the lack of available funding, a waitlist was established for this program in the last year.

House Bill 18-1094 will reauthorize the law, improve access to the program in rural parts of the state and ensure adequate funds to meet the increased needs for these children now and in the future.

There is much more our state must do to strengthen our youth mental health system. Passage of the Children and Youth Mental Health Treatment Act this legislative session is a strong start to what we hope is a much larger effort to address a mental health systemic change.

We implore the legislature to work quickly and unequivocally to support this critical legislation.

Article orignially appreared on Colorado Politics.